Finding hope, help for women after incarceration

Natalie Pollard speaking to attendees // Steve Floyd

“I got what I needed,” said Natalie Pollard after attending Sister Spokesman’s “New Beginnings: Life After Incarceration” discussion. She had left work and rushed over to the March 2 event on a mission to gather info for herself and other women transitioning from incarceration.

“It was wonderful to be able to briefly share my story,” added Pollard, “and me being formerly incarcerated getting information that I didn’t know — it was phenomenal.”

As Pollard confided to attendees gathered at the Minneapolis Urban League, because of her abrupt release from prison, she missed much of the pre-release, transitional information that was shared with attendees by panelist Guy Bosch, associate warden at Shakopee Correctional Facility.

“I was in an abusive relationship and I had an abusive boyfriend,” Pollard explained during the discussion. “One night he broke into my house and attacked me and I defended myself. And as a result, he passed away. So they charged me with his death; I was also pregnant with his child…”

Pollard went on to share that after she filed an appeal and got a second-degree murder without intent conviction overturned. However, Ramsey County wanted to re-try her case. So, to avoid “going to trial again and possibly getting more time and [being] away from my children, I took a plea deal… second-degree manslaughter,” said Pollard.

She was released from Shakopee Correctional Facility in Oct. of 2017 and is on parole until June. Although Pollard is employed and is learning an interstate truck driving trade, she also revealed that she’s homeless. Because the county wanted to terminate her parental rights, she transferred custody of her kids to her parents. To get them back, she’ll need stable housing and employment.

Pollard and panelist Cecelia Viel, who was also formerly incarcerated, offered attendees a glimpse into the harsh realities women must navigate upon release from prison. How does one stay afloat among a sea of “no’s” when applying for jobs, housing, or trying to reconnect with a family torn apart by prolonged absence?

[Click below for “New Beginnings Life After Incarceration” clips.  Find full highlights here.]

“I needed some support in trying to reunite with my family and with kids,” admitted Viel, now the executive director of the StartANew organization. “Because I had been gone for over three years…I needed to get back to being Mom. That was a hard one.”

It’s not that there aren’t resources available for formerly incarcerated women. In some cases, the information just isn’t getting out to those who need it when they need it. “I feel like a lot of people don’t know about the resources available to them when they’re transitioning,” said panelist Betalham Benti, a re-entry counselor at Goodwill Easter Seals. “And it’s very critical to do the work and to get the word out there as much as possible so people have an outlet.”              

The event’s panelists laid out the various programs and resources offered in prison and outside — from transitional fairs and GED and college courses in prison to assistance with license reinstatement, proper identification, clothing, and employment upon release, to name a few. All agreed that successful re-entry largely depends on how proactive and engaged a person is in their transition.

Leading the discussion were (l-r) Betalham Benti, Guy Bosch, Tracey Williams-Dillard and Cecelia Viel // Photo by Steve Floyd

Another key takeaway from the conversation was the overwhelming agreement on the importance of language, shifting away from labels like offender and inmate to terms like client, visitor or resident of an institution.

Attendee Michele Fernandes Livingston explained. “To refer to an institution as a residence…because you are in fact residing in prison serving your sentence, that gives a person more of an identity and place and a wholeness. [You can’t] dehumanize people, and then expect them to return to a community whole.”

Community members play a pivotal role in helping formerly incarcerated people rejoin society, said Benti. “As family, as community members, as practitioners, how are we supporting that process? Saying simple things like, ‘I’m proud of you’ or ‘We’re lucky and happy to have you back!’ That’s a start.

“We can hold policy-makers accountable, from a policy perspective” continued Benti, “ but we also need to take into consideration as community members, how are we contributing to their transition?”

Pastor Rozenia Hood Fuller, MDiv., of Good News Baptist Church in North Minneapolis, said she came out to the event because “the church needs to be in the community and not just behind four walls.

“I wanted to learn how to best support folks that I serve in my church, and in my community and in my family who need those resources,” Fuller continued. “And I also want to share [the resources] with other pastors. So this was good for me.”

Pastor Rozenia Hood Fuller, MDiv // Photo by Steve Floyd

Asked what more community members can do to best aid women re-entering society, Pollard said, “Have a little compassion. If you’re a private landlord willing to work with someone with a felony background, that information should be pushed out more — clothing, housing, food shelves, anything that would help a woman to get back on her feet.”

Benti echoed that sentiment for business owners.

“Be open to hiring individuals with a criminal background. Be the first person to give them a chance.”

 Scroll down for more photos by Steve Floyd.

Go here to find re-entry resources in the greater Twin Cities area.

Next up for Sister Spokesman: “Homeownership Can Be Yours!” on April 6, 12-4 pm at LifeSource, 2225 N West River Rd in Minneapolis. Visit @SisterSpokesman on Facebook to RSVP.